The many challenges faced by HR and noted earlier in this series were confirmed by readers. Others also offered solutions and interesting comments. At times it feels we don't get sufficient respect. We may not be included in senior decision-making although we believe our organizations would be better off if we were. The good news is that we can win what we need - though not always what we want - so what's working?
Stock market analysts and line managers are beginning to recognize HR as more important. Increasing proof now surrounds all businesses that improving HR today improves financial results tomorrow. Studies such as Watson Wyatt's Human Capital Index and employee attitude research have convinced most observers that HR produces value. Companies have limited ways to prove they have great HR practices. Just options such as getting rated in surveys like Hewitt's "Best Companies to Work For" reports. Another of their studies reinforces the real economic value to companies of developing better leaders and leadership. For the small number of participants that's a good message.
HR leadership itself is an issue. Though every department and level of every function in every company has someone we designate a "leader," many fewer people actually live up to that description than we could hope - and that includes HR. Even among ourselves, we're quick to point out bad examples. Though we ought to be saying they're the minority, it may be we don't believe that.
We know it's been incredibly easy for HR people to be promoted because they're good administrators and program operators, yet they may have fewer strategic skills or vision. This is not only true HR. The tendency continues in many companies to promote some who perform their technical functions well, but have few strategic or even people skills.
Since HR was regarded as a junior function until more recently than many line operations, this was magnified. We noted also in earlier articles that HR is perhaps the most complicated department, subject to the most varied, often fuzzy and nearly always less-tangible demands of any group in most organizations. If anything our HR leaders need to be stronger, not weaker, than average.
Today's legacy HR, then, has tended to suffer from weaker leaders in the most complex of functions at a time when the operation is being raised to prominence and placed in the spotlight. Small wonder HR executives are expected to prove their worth again and again… in an area where tangible results are relatively harder to come by and where multiple goals are more common than the simple goals we find in other areas. In Sales - get that one single sales number up! Finance and operations - get costs down, meet deadlines! IT and similar areas - hold costs, deliver promises! HR - hold costs and deliver...what? How many objectives could we list? I once tried to imagine just how many measures we could develop to measure effective HR. I got a headache.
The challenge is also an opportunity. HR will stretch anyone to become better at a wide range of skills. In some companies, HR experience is essential for senior leadership positions. The oft-repeated theory that HR should be staffed by line managers rotating in cuts both ways. Those managers learn tremendously from the experience of so many competing expectations and intangible requirements as much as they bring a business point of view into HR. We may not rotate many people into finance or IT, but we certainly should into HR, just to ensure they have the insight that these tasks require.
Right now there is a tendency for some CEO's to think that the place to rotate business managers into HR is at the top - to ensure HR's strategies mesh with business needs. They need to be thinking more in terms of rotating people in at lower levels to learn early in their careers what HR challenges are about. Giving people this broadening experience at a formative time is essential for many.
At the top end, any senior HR executive who doesn't understand the need and the processes for integrating HR strategy with line business goals should never have been promoted to begin with. We shouldn't, but still will for some time to come, see senior HR people out of touch with business vision. Ouch! This stereotype still has too much truth behind it. Let's first of all make sure each of us is doing everything we can to get rid of that.
The next article in this series will target some of the basic things top HR executives need to focus on to show they're the sort of leaders who deserve and are seen to deserve the respect and inclusion everyone wants.